In my recent reviews of the rise and fall of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement (see here and here), I mentioned that the IDers were not young Earth creationists. They accepted almost all of the scientific conclusions regarding the age of the Earth and evolution. What they wanted was to overthrow the idea of both methodological and philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism that they felt undermined the basis for belief in god.
Accepting an old Earth and the tenets of evolution creates a serious theological problem for all Christians whose foundational belief is that all of us are sinners even from birth, and that Jesus died as vicarious atonement for our sins to enable us to be forgiven. Christians believe that all suffering is due to the fall from grace caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they defied god’s instructions not to eat from the tree of knowledge and that sin was then passed down to everyone since then. The problem for those who treat the Genesis story and the Garden of Eden as metaphorical is that it undermines this belief.
If you believe in an old Earth and evolution, then when did the original sin that taints all of us occur? How do you explain the natural disasters and suffering that occurred during the time of our pre-human ancestors? Mainstream theologians have devoted considerable efforts to addressing this problem but I want to focus on William Dembski’s suggested solution that got him into considerable hot water from the young Earth creationists. I wrote much of this post some time ago at the time when it happened but I am providing an updated version because I thought some readers might benefit (and be amused) in seeing how convoluted it can get to include original sin once you abandon the idea of a young Earth.
Dembski’s book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009) supposedly answered this question but since there was no chance in hell that I would buy that book and read it, I thought his solution would be forever lost to me. But fortunately there was a blogger (who claimed to be also an orthodox Baptist) who wrote a detailed review of Dembski’s book with lots of direct quotes in a Facebook post (that has since unfortunately disappeared) so that I became privy to Dembski’s main argument which I will share with you, because I am sure that you have been losing sleep worrying over this very question. Brace yourself for an earthshaking revelation: in Dembski’s theory effects can precede causes!
Here’s how Dembski’s theory works. He retains the Garden of Eden story but within the framework of an old Earth. You start with the big bang and evolution working their way through, all leading up to the time when non-human hominids appeared. All this happened just the way we godless heathens say it happened based on silly old evidence and the laws of science. But as Dembski says, “these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God.” Then at some point, these hominids entered the Garden of Eden, “received God’s image and became fully human” (whatever that means). They then experienced the famous fall from grace and the consequent punishment of suffering that is inflicted on us all.
But what about all the suffering experienced by living things before this? How do you explain that? Here’s the real kicker: All the suffering that occurred before that time was due to god applying the punishment retroactively because he knew the fall was going to happen later. So, for example, god punished the poor dinosaurs by sending an asteroid to collide with the Earth and cause all of them to go extinct because sixty five million years later a couple of hominids would wander into a garden and eat some fruit. Doesn’t seem quite fair to the dinosaurs but god moves in mysterious ways and who are we to question god’s sense of justice?
At this point, I am sure that some of you are saying, “Hold it right there, Bill. Isn’t that going a bit too far? Surely you realize that abandoning the principle of causality is to deal science a mortal blow? If effects can precede causes, then is anything in science safe? Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The problem with you cynics is that you are not looking at things with the eye of faith. After all, once you have given god the power of omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence so that he can overrule all the laws of science, why hold back? Why not go the whole hog and give him the power to reverse cause and effect as well? As Dembski says, “Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects?” True, that. Once you have demonstrated a willingness to abandon almost all of science, why cling to some trivial remnant of it merely because it poses an obstacle to your theological argument? As the comic strip Jesus and Mo astutely points out, what gives religion its edge is that it is allowed to make stuff up.
One of Dembski’s critics, fellow Baptist theologian Tom Nettles who thinks a young Earth is the way to go, thought that Dembski’s theory was absurd and in a scathing review of the book compares it to a stern father who spanks his child soundly every Sunday evening because he knows that the child will do something wrong during the coming week and so he might as well get the punishment over with.
There is no doubt that Dembski is clever and highly knowledgeable and educated. When I think of all the undoubtedly very clever people over the centuries, even millennia, spending enormous amounts of time tying themselves up in intellectual knots to reconcile their allegedly holy books with rapidly advancing science, it truly does seem like a colossal waste of brain power. The United Negro College Fund has for decades had as its slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” and that truly applies to people like Dembski. What make it worse is that the people seeking to solve such problems do not seem to realize that the problems they are grappling with are artificial ones of their own creation and are not able to see a simple solution that stares them in the face.